Cherished the world over, everybody knows about the Mini. Whether that's because it was the transport of choice for four Liverpool boys, collectively known as The Beatles or because it reigned supreme in three of its four Monte Carlo Rallies, who knows? But now there's a new Mini to love – and the World Rally Championship has fallen for it already.
When the “Mini for WRC” story broke two summers ago, it seemed impossible. There wasn't a Cooper big enough to fit the regulations. Then came the Countryman, a monster of a Mini with four doors and as many driven wheels. Suddenly it all made sense. Mini is a range, not just one revolutionary, pocket-sized car; and it's also a global range. The Countryman, like the Cooper and Clubman, can be seen throughout America, having cracked the U.S. market much as The Beatles did – and its iconic namesake didn't.
The default setting with anything Mini is to revert to the 1960s and the Monte Carlo rally – but the Mini, in fact, won rallies as diverse as the 1,000 Lakes and the Acropolis. It was a true giant-killer. And a true factory car. Turned out of BMC's competitions department in Abingdon, Oxforshire, UK, it had a company, a city and a country behind it.
The new car, the Mini John Cooper Works WRC, is also British…or at least, it's one-third British. Prodrive, the firm which sent Japanese minnow Subaru out of a farmer's field and into the WRC winners circle in the 1990s, is developing and building the car; the 1.6-liter turbocharged engine comes from BMW Motorsport in Germany and the Countryman itself is built in Austria.
While BMW and Mini are big into the history and the marketing potential of the program, Prodrive has its eyes firmly on the future – and more glory for a team already boasting five WRC titles.
Looking forward is partly because Prodrive's recent past was pretty painful. The Subaru-Prodrive partnership fell apart at the end of 2008, when the Japanese marque walked away from the WRC. This was partly because of tough economic conditions and partly because the Impreza hadn't won for three years and its next victory didn't look imminent.
Prodrive has, however, taken a different approach with the Mini. In the immediate aftermath of Subaru, the firm's design department was tasked with generating the optimum rally machine, tailored to new-for-2011 regulations but not to any car in particular, because no deal had been done. After 18 months of virtual design, the Mini deal was signed, and theory became practice last September, when a John Cooper Works WRC test car was fired down a gravel road in Portugal for the first time.
The WRC has moved on now. It's no longer about super high-tech electronics, and active this, that and the other; nor does it involve Formula 1-style budgets. It's now a stock formula, with one specification of manual, sequential gear change, three passive differentials, an engine which has tighter controls over it than ever before (producing just over 300hp) and a restricted aero package. These moves have made it more cost-effective than ever for manufacturers to bring their base vehicle (which still doesn't have to be turbo or four-wheel drive) and let a specialist like Prodrive build them a world-beater.
The Mini made its debut in May's Rally d'Italia in Sardinia and immediately scored. Britain's Kris Meeke was running fourth when a throttle problem forced him off the road and out of the rally, while his Spanish teammate Dani Sordo was sixth at the finish. For a testing rally, which is both fast and rough, that was considered a good inaugural result.
The partnership of Sordo and Meeke is an interesting one. Sordo was Sebastien Loeb's whipping boy at Citroen, finishing second 17 times in 73 starts in the same machinery as the Frenchman. Over the same period, Loeb took 42 wins, and Sordo 42 less than that.
One of the biggest question marks over the Mini team is Sordo. Certainly, he comes with exceptional insight into what made the sport's most successful team tick, but his data is dated already. These are the days of the WRC's new world order; two liters and hi-tech are old hat now. So, does Sordo have what it takes?
“I don't want to be beaten by my teammate any more,” he smiles, “I've had enough of that.”
But, in Meeke, he's going to find a competitor every bit as psychologically tough as Loeb. The Northern Irishman has had to fight tooth and nail for the WRC opportunity his mentor Colin McRae fully believed he deserved. And you get the feeling he's desperate to further Sordo's suffering.
Sordo is with Mini until the end of next year, while Meeke is committed until the end of 2013, with massive desire, but as-yet unproven ability at the highest level – although he has won the world's second-tier rally series, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
And 2013 is what everybody's talking about. That's the target year. The team is looking for rally wins next season and titles the year after. On paper, that's realistic. The reality might not be so straightforward. This Mini team is not a super-funded manufacturer effort in the style of Citroen or the inbound Volkswagen effort (see sidebar). This is a manufacturer-blessed venture, more akin to the Ford/M-Sport alliance, which runs the Fiesta RS WRC.
The commercial side of the business – the selling of private Mini WRCs – will be a precursor to sporting success, with profits plowed back into the evolving John Cooper Works WRC.
With that in mind, is BMW genuinely behind this effort to take Mini back to the front? It would be folly to think the backing is anything like that which went into its Formula 1 project – or even the company's return to DTM racing – but there appears to be genuine, and growing, enthusiasm for the program.
Sixth in Sardinia and third in Germany this past weekend was a solid start, but the upcoming Finnish Rally could highlight problems with the John Cooper Works WRC. The BMW motor is said to be down on torque and horses and no car, however well it does everything else, can succeed without a strong engine.
Much of the above will be forgiven for the balance of this season. As FIA president Jean Todt put it: “The legend is back…” and the honeymoon period has a way to run yet.
Inevitably, Prodrive chairman David Richards isn't exactly bashful in his predictions. “When I look at this car, I've never been more confident of success,” he says. Given that the Countryman isn't known as a thing of beauty, Richards must have a lot of faith in the bits beneath the skin.
But, beauty or beast, Mini is back in rallying. And, for now, it's more Here Comes the Sun than Yesterday.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the September 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.